Traditional Balsamic Vinegar: Why It Costs More (and Is Worth Every Extra Penny)

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar costs about 20 times as much as the commercial balsamic vinegars sold at supermarkets. That’s quite a differential. It’s also very hard to find and comes in very small bottles. Is it really worth the higher price (and all the fuss)?

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Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena, Italy, by Acetaia Villa San Donnino.

Food + Beverage

Why does Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena, Italy, cost so much more than the commercially produced balsamic vinegars sold supermarkets? To start with, it is 100% natural. Unlike commercially produced balsamic vinegar, it has no additives such as starters, flavour enhancers, or colourings.

Secondly, traditional balsamic vinegar takes at least 12 years to produce (against two months for the commercial brands). The production process is also far more labour intensive.

Thirdly, traditional balsamic vinegar can be hard to find. You won’t find it sold at mass-market supermarkets. Only high-end speciality or boutique food purveyors carry it.

Not only that, it only comes in ridiculously small bottles, which would hardly last me a couple of weeks – or so I thought.

And then there was that all-important question: what about the taste?

To get an answer to these (and other) questions, I attended a masterclass on the traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, Italy, to learn what distinguishes it from the commercially produced balsamic vinegars widely available in supermarkets in Hong Kong around the world.

The Pride of Modena Master Class

 

I was invited by Ada Leung, Sales and Marketing Director, Cottage Vineyards (International) Limited, to attend the Pride of Modena Masterclass, which was followed by a wine pairing dinner at Cucina, the fine-dining Italian restaurant at the Marco Polo Hotel, Hong Kong.

Before the class started, I had a private audience with Davide Lonardi of Acetaia Villa Donnino, who was flown in from Italy for the event.

He explained to me in detail what distinguished Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from the commercial brands sold at supermarkets, answering my questions knowledgeably and in excellent English.

A formal masterclass followed, with input from …

  • Ada Leung of Cottage Vineyards;
  • Asif Bajwa of the Marco Polo Hong Kong, Gateway, and Prince hotels;
  • Antonello De Riu, the Italian Consul General of Hong Kong and Macau;
  • Dr Matthew Man of the Maserati Club;
  • Davide Lonardi, Acetaia Villa San Donnino.

The event was a collaboration between the Marco Polo Hotel and Hong Kong-based Cottage Vineyards with the support of the Consulate General of Italy in Hong Kong and Macau.

Slow Food and Fast Cars

 

Modena is an ancient city in Northern Italy with a history of 2,250 years. The city is known for fast cars (think Maserati), opera (think Pavarotti), cheese (think parmesan), and the Great Balsamic Vinegar Tradition (think Acetaia Villa San Donnino).

Just as Maserati is not the only sports car maker associated with the city (Ferrari, Lamborghini, De Tomaso, and Pagani are also – or were previously – located there), Acetaia Villa San Donnino is not the only maker of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV) based in the city.

There are an estimated 100 producers of TBV in Modena, with some producing as many as 7,000 bottles a year, and others producing fewer than 200.

Key Differences Between Commercial and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar

The first thing I learned was that there was a huge difference between the balsamic vinegar sold at supermarkets (which I usually use when making salad dressing) and the great Traditional Balsamic Vinegar made in Modena, Italy, which is DOC protected.

  • Commercial vinegars begin with red wine whereas traditional vinegars begin with grape juice – there is no alcoholic content.
  • Commercial vinegars can contain other ingredients (such as colouring, thickening agents, and flavourings) whereas traditional vinegars have only one ingredient: fresh grape juice from Modena, which is cooked in an open vat over a fire for 24 hours.
  • Commercial vinegars must be aged for a minimum of 60 days whereas traditional vinegars must be aged for at least 12 years.
  • Millions of bottles of commercial vinegar are produced each year whereas fewer than 100,000 bottles of traditional vinegar are produced each year.
  • Commercial vinegars are priced upwards of HK$20 whereas traditional vinegars are priced upwards of HK$400.

The Solera System

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Davide Lonardi with a batteria used to make Traditional Balsamic Vinegar in Modena, Italy.

The Traditional Balsamic Vinegar made in Modena is produced according to the Solera System.

After the grapes have been harvested and pressed, the juice is filtered and immediately cooked for 24 hours in a steel vat, with 100 litres of fresh juice producing 60 litres of boiled juice. It is simmered at a low temperature without a lid.

After the juice has been approved, it is put into a series of five barrels of different sizes and woods, which is called a Batteria.

As you will see from the above photo, the barrels are significantly smaller than the barrels used to produce wine.

  • Oak (60 litres)
  • Chestnut (50 litres)
  • Cherrywood (40 litres)
  • Ash (30 litres)
  • Mulberry (20 litres)

Because the barrels are made of different woods, each one of the barrels adds a different characteristic to the vinegar, ranging from fruitiness to aroma to colour. The size of the barrels, however, has no impact on the final product.

What is interesting is that the barrels should be used for as long as possible. Because the barrels absorb flavours, the older they are, the better they get.

After the barrels have been filled, they are put into the attic with their tops left open because this encourages oxidation. About 10% of the liquid evaporates over the course of a year.

After one year, juice from the second smallest barrel is used to top up the smallest barrel, juice from the third smallest barrel is used to top up the second smallest barrel, and so forth.

Juice from the next year’s harvest is then used to top up the largest barrel. The entire process takes at least 12 years to produce affinato grade vinegar.

A more complicated process takes at least 25 years, producing a finer (and more expensive) variety of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar called extravecchio.

The Results

The solera system results in a unique vinegar, which is highly concentrated, non-aggressively acidic, very sweet, and naturally created. No “starting” ingredients or flavour enhancers or colouring agents are required.

Because of its thickness and complex flavour, only a few drops are needed to enhance the flavour of dishes ranging from meat and fish to pasta dishes, risotto, and vegetables. Apparently, it goes especially well with asparagus, one of my favourite vegetables.

“Just add a couple of drops at the end,” Davide advises.

“Never cook it!”

The vinegar can even be dribbled on top of ice cream and fruit. I tried it on vanilla ice cream, and was delicious!

My takeaway: because of its highly concentrated nature – and intense flavour – only a few drops of TBV are required to produce a superior effect.

I guess that’s why it comes in such small bottles. A little bit goes a very long way.

Why Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Can Be Paired with Wine

Little did I know that I had been committing a wine-pairing faux pas all these years. I’ve often served wine – usually a white wine – with salad, which I usually topped with an oil-and-vinegar-based salad dressing.

And it has usually been a home-made salad dressing. I don’t usually care for the commercial salad dressings you get at supermarkets. Not only is it cheaper to make your own, they usually taste better, as well.

So it came as a surprise when I attended the Pride of Modena Masterclass, which was organized by Cottage Vineyards, and learned that is was okay to pair vinegar with wine.

I was surprised because I had never known that you weren’t supposed to do it, but relieved to find out that there was nothing wrong with doing what I had been doing all these years.

According to Ada Leung, contrary to what the wine manuals tell you, wine and vinegar are NOT “natural enemies”. But it really depends on the vinegar.

“Balsamic vinegar can be too aggressively acidic, which is not good for wine pairing,” Ada says.

“With traditional balsamic vinegar, it is NOT an enemy of wine.”

This is because traditional balsamic vinegar, which is relatively rare, is not as “aggressively acidic” as the commercial balsamic vinegar that is sold at supermarkets in Hong Kong and around the world.

Googling Wine and Vinegar

I Googled “wine and vinegar” to see if they really were considered to be “natural enemies”, and this was one of the first things I came up with:

“In the world of wine, vinegar is a no-no,” says Jennifer Jordan, writing in a website called Savor Each Glass.

“Whether adding it to foods or drinking it directly from the bottle, vinegar has no business being involved with wine. They are, plainly put, arch enemies. For this reason, vinegar should be omitted, even when it comes to salad.”

But Jennifer does have an interesting substitute for vinegar. Can you guess what it is?

“One of the best options around this is to use wine as the ‘vinegar’ part of a salad dressing;” Jennifer says.

“For example, instead of using oil vinaigrette, compose a salad dressing using oil, wine, and whatever spices you want. This will keep your salad bar from interfering with your mini bar.”

I must say, it’s an interesting concept, and I’m tempted to try it except for one thing. I LOVE the taste of Balsamic vinegar, and I’m loathe to mess with my mouthwatering recipe for salad dressing, which has only three simple ingredients.

Perhaps I should buy a bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar and try using that and compare it to Jennifer’s suggestion of substituting wine for wine vinegar and compare that with the commercially produced balsamic vinegar that I have been using all along.

It would make an interesting comparison (and an interesting blog post)!

The Reception …

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Here I am with Antonello De Riu, the Italian Consul General of Hong Kong and Macau (centre), and another attendee.
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Reception at Cucina, the fine-dining Italian restaurant at the Marco Polo Hotel, Hong Kong.

Following the Pride of Modena Masterclass, participants of the class were taken to Cucina, the fine-dining Italian restaurant at the Marco Polo Hotel, Hong Kong, where a reception was in process.

The following canapes were washed down with Fattoria Moretto ‘Canova’ Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC NV (Emilia-Romagna):

  • Parmesan cheese creme brulee
  • Mortadella mousse with balsamic sphere
  • Modena ham bruschetta
  • Pig head terrine on chickpea puree

The Dinner …

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image-of-dinner-party-guestsFollowing the reception, we were asked to be seated. There were introductions and presentations.

We were then served a multiple-course wine- and vinegar-pairing dinner to the accompaniment of La Traviata. 

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Winter salad, romanesco broccoli, fennel, red endive, and lobster – served with Nerone (six years) balsamic dressing and Molino di Sant Antimo Chardonnay Toscana IGT 2013 (Toscana)

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Seared scallop, stewed onions emulsion, fried leeks, baby vegetables and baby vegetables – served with Bianco (two years) balsamic dressing and Tenuta Cantagallo Chianti Montalbano Riserva DOCG 2013 (Toscana)

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Hand-made tortelloni stuffed with pumpkin, butter, and sage with Parmigiano cheese – served with traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena DOP 12 years and Tenuta Le Farnete Carmignano DOCG 2014 (Toscana)

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Roasted veal loin, Parma ham foam, and whipped potato – served with traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena DOP 12 years and Tenuta Cantagallo ‘Il Fondatore’ Chianti Montalbano Riserva Limited Edition 2015 (Toscana) – pre-sale

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Panettone with Zibbio grapes infused with 12-year balsamic vinegar of Modena DOP, berries, and vanilla ice cream – served with Tenuta Cantagallo Vin Santo del Chianti Montalbano Riserva DOC 2010 (2009: RP93) (Toscana)

Digestif: traditional balsamic vinegar of Moderna DOP 25 years – served with coffee or tea.

The Verdict …

The masterclass was an eye-opener and both an enjoyable and an educational experience. I particularly enjoyed my one-on-one interview with Davide, who was able to explain to me a very complex process in impeccable English.

The sumptuous dinner was fantastic. If I had to pick a favourite dish, it would have to be the seared scallop, which was tremendously enhanced by a dab of Bianco (two years) balsamic vinegar.

A bottle was put on the table, and we were encouraged to add a bit more, and I was amazed at how much just a few drops of it enriched the flavour of the dish.

When I posted photos of each course on Instagram, however, it was the hand-made tortelloni that drew the most attention, attracting the most likes and the most comments.

Best of all was getting to meet some very charming people and to reconnect with an old friend, Asif Bajwar, whom I hadn’t seen in at least 10 years.

I’ve produced a short video on the experience with an amazing soundtrack. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena, Italy: without doubt, one of the best ways to enhance the flavour of food!

 

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5 Replies to “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar: Why It Costs More (and Is Worth Every Extra Penny)”

  1. Interesting article, Michael. I immediately checked my balsamic vinegar. I had three bottles that all said “balsamic vinegar of Modena Italy”, but none said “traditional”, nor how long they had aged. I saw the exact packaged vinegar as in your photo of Mr.Lonardi with the barrel casks. The same package/brand is $179 on Amazon. I think I purchased better than average BV, but, I know that I could not bring myself to pay that much ($179) for BV. After reading this article, I think I will now be more selective when I shop for BV. You must have enjoyed the class.

    1. HI Pat! Glad you enjoyed the piece. Balsamic vinegar must originate in Italy, but only three types are “protected” including two types from Modena: Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. The type I’ve got in my kitchen is Colavita; it belongs to the second category and is not expensive. It’s widely available at supermarkets, and I LOVE using it to make salad dressings. Let me know if you want my “secret” recipe. I came up with it a couple of weeks ago. It’s insanely simple, but I can’t get enough of it. Most commercial vinegars are PARTLY made in Modena, but only those following stringent guidelines can be called “traditional”. The thing about the traditional balsamic vinegars is that you use only a fraction of what you would use with the commercial brands. We were encouraged to add a few drops to the scallop soup we were served at dinner, and I could not believe how much such a small amount could enhance the flavour.

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